History and Culture of Policing on Taiwan

Sentiment, Reason, and Law: Policing in the Republic of China on Taiwan, by Jeffrey T. Martin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Maria de Fátima Amante, ISCSP & CAPP, Universidade de Lisboa

Jeffrey T. Martin’s book is a masterful addition to the ethnographic literature both on the anthropology of the state and for the anthropology of police and policing.  The unpretentious and perceptive question “What are police for?” (p. 1) opens this engaging study. Supported by a strong critical theoretical frame, the case of the Taiwanese police force is used to show that there is no single answer to this question, and that we must question the liberal presumption that the police and police officers are first and foremost experts and agents of state violence.

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one introduces the police station as a locus of an intricate network of social relationships, each of which is vital to understanding the work of the police in Taiwan. The particularity of the Taiwanese police is shown when Martin portrays the police station more as a social venue than a bureaucratic space, used by many people as a sitting room. We learn how in Taiwanese culture, and accordingly in the police station, relationships are dependent on a traditional order and ordering practice–an intricate network of mutuality, interdependence and solidarity–so that every situation the police have to deal with is in a way previously determined. As is common in ethnographies of the state, we find in Martin’s book a key element which functions as an anchor for ethnographically deconstructing the cold, strained, dehumanized way that classical theories conceive the state-citizen relationship. Here, the key object is the tea table and its pivotal role in the police officer’s work. Not only are host-guest dynamics materialized in the ritual of drinking tea at the station, the tea-table becomes emblematic of Martin’s whole argument: showing the narrowness of the legalist perspective on the work of the police, while introducing a ritual element and its political function into our understanding of policing. 

Chapter two makes an important contribution to understanding how sentiment (qing) became the perennial keystone of every political action in Taiwanese policing. Martin explains the role of sentiment in policing with a clear and well-informed tour through important periods in the history of Taiwan. The Japanese administrative police system’s policy of documenting personal qualities alongside civil status, including ways of registering moral character, was only maintained and intensified as intimate dimensions of qing were used for political control after the Republic of China regained control of the island. The transition to democracy brought increased accountability for the police, but bureaucratic registration continued to be important and personal and character traits remained at the center of police power. The significance of the police registry of Taiwanese persons boils down to the fact that the “police status” of every citizen “takes precedence over legal citizenship as a primary vector for state-provisioned ontological security” (p. 61).

This book gains momentum in chapter three through a detailed ethnography of Taiwanese patrol work. Patrolling, a core topic in policing studies and a must observe for ethnographers, is often mistakenly taken for modern policing.  Although part of the police officers’ daily routines, in Taiwan patrolling is not so much about vigilance and controlling space, but also serves as a crucial practice for reinforcing community ties through repeated visits from the police. Patrol-work in this context becomes a politics of care and an active mediation between opponents, as police collaborate with local “vigilance” committees and neighborhood elites. This practice is in stark contrast to liberal conceptions of the police as the front-line legal authority, employing violence and physical force as means to restore order; here rather, police officers, volunteers and citizens are all implicated in “different idioms of caretaking” (p. 81). 

Martin’s account of the relations between this politics of care, sentiment, mutuality and reciprocity (qing), and formal state-based law (fa) is fully developed in chapter four. At the Taiwanese police station (paichusuo), police violence is achieved through indifference: the jurisprudence of qing depends on having political capital. Through several ethnographic vignettes we come to understand how political representation depends on being part of a patron-client network, and how these solidarities substitute for more the more usual action of law enforcement in terms of rights and duties. Policing moves in between these two social realms–of thick social solidarities and formal rights–with qing being the informal and preferred way to act, through networks that enable the police to “help out” rather than invoke formal police power by “processing a case.”

How the constant compromise between qing (sentiment) and fa (law) is achieved is explored in chapter five, astutely entitled “Holding things together.” Each time the police have to “help out” or “handle a situation” (the euphemism police officers use to refer their job), reason (li) is the mediating element they deploy in order to assure that all players achieve their goal. That is, police officers exercise discretion, reading every situation wisely so that they can act in a way compliant with the law while not colliding with people who are considered powerful. Being oblivious to the role of power and status could endanger collective order and the job of the individual officer alike. Harmony is the goal to be achieved, and police officers clearly acknowledge that the law is but one side of this game.

The final chapter sums up the argument: most of the work of police officers and local institutions (such as the paichusuo where the fieldwork was conducted) essentially takes shape as informal mediation, emphasizing sentiment over law. A large part of police work is done backstage, when an agreement can be negotiated between the parties involved. Moreover, the police are only one of many players in a complex political field, and police officers are often weak links in the chain that enables order to be maintained. This position of informality and structural marginality is, needless to say, very distant from the common western perception of modern police and policing.

The strength of the book lies in the in-depth fieldwork that, combined with a refusal of presentism, enables Martin to distance himself from culturalism and present Taiwanese police and its work as part of a historical process.  The nuanced relationship that he presents between sentiment, reason, and law is convincingly grounded in Taiwan’s illiberal past.  The argument that Taiwanese democratic policing operates as a political rather than a law enforcement institution, and that police officers work toward the “administrative repair of political problems” (p. 110), is a challenging and stimulating line of inquiry. Thus, this book can be highly recommended as a contribution to the anthropology of policing and of the state.